I never thought a podcast conversation about one of my favorite movies, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, would lead to a post on intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation or the toll that the extrinsic can take on one’s mental health.
Intrinsic Versus Extrinsic Motivation
An article in Verywell Mind says “extrinsic motivation occurs when we are motivated to perform a behavior or engage in an activity to earn a reward or avoid punishment. Intrinsic motivation involves engaging in a behavior because it is personally rewarding; essentially, performing an activity for its own sake rather than the desire for some external reward.”
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre revolves around gold prospecting, an activity that few would engage in except for the potential reward. So, how could a movie about something I have no intrinsic interest in become one of my all-time favorite films?
Intrinsically Motivated Podcast
I’ll let the hosts of the Unspooled podcast explain: “Paul Scheer is a lifelong movie buff, but he’s never seen many of the all time greats. On Unspooled, his team-up with film critic Amy Nicholson, he’s remedying that by watching the AFI’s (American Film Institute’s) top 100 movies of all time, to find out what makes classics like Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver so special.”
AMY: This film is terrific and nasty and dark and brutal and funny and strange. I loved this movie so much.
PAUL: I was kind of blown away by the film because it really is a dark character study. I mean, Humphrey Bogart’s character in this, I think, reminded me in many ways of a character like we saw in Taxi Driver: this person going mad and we’re along for this journey, and you understand it on some level.
Art Versus Commercial Potential
The Treasure of Sierra Madre would never have been made into a film if Humphrey Bogart hadn’t relished the challenge of playing the unsympathetic central character or possessed the star power to pick his next project.
Amy shares some studio notes on the source novel appraising its potential as a film.
AMY: There’s no question that a very powerful picture could be made from this. What is the box office appeal would be the question… A fine product would result, but personally I doubt whether this subject could be sold to the women in audiences…
In some respects, the novel is reminiscent of Greed… and Greed was lauded as an artistic success, but it is not artistic success we are after but rather box office possibilities. And for this reason, we cannot recommend this novel.
Gold Digging Gone Wrong
Amy summarizes the the plot of the John Huston film starring Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs: Fred C. Dobbs is a broke panhandler in Mexico. He makes a friend, who’s Tim Holt playing a character named Bob Curtin, and the two of them come into just enough money to convince an old-timey gold-digging genius to teach them how to dig for gold. The three of them set out, find gold, and the finding of the gold becomes a disaster.
The Problem with Extrinsic Motivation
AMY: It’s about this idea that as soon as you get a little bit of something you always want more, which is so fundamental in human nature that we get a lecture about it at the beginning, just to sort of set up what this film is about.
Dobbs and Curtin meet the veteran prospector Howard (Walter Huston) in a flop house sharing stories with his fellow patrons.
FLOPHOUSE PATRON: $5,000 is a lot of money.
HOWARD: Mmm. Yeah, here in this joint it seems like a lot. But I tell you, if you was to make a real strike, you couldn’t be dragged away. Not even the threat of miserable death would keep you from trying to add $10,000 more. Ten you’d want to get twenty-five, twenty-five you’d want to get fifty, fifty, a hundred. Like roulette. One more turn, you know. Always one more.
DOBBS: It wouldn’t be that way with me. I swear it wouldn’t. I’d take only what I set out to get. Even if there’s still a half a million dollars worth lying around waiting to be picked up.
HOWARD: I’ve dug in Alaska and Canada and Colorado. I was with the crowd in the British Honduras, where I’d made my fare back home… and almost enough over to cure me of the fever I’d caught. Dug in California and Australia. All over the world, practically. Yeah. I know what gold does to men’s souls.
Paul observes that this film’s portrayal of prospecting is a parallel for addiction. Dobbs who’s never known wealth is sure that he can handle it. Howard, who’s been there, knows that he can’t trust himself.
What Gold Can Buy
AMY: I think one of the things that just really separates Bogart’s character from everybody else is that when they talk about what they’re going to do with money. They’re all forward thinking. One of them’s like, “I’m gonna build a shop, I’m gonna retire.” The other one’s like, “I want a peach orchard.” They have a goal in mind. And all Bogart wants is a good suit and he wants a good meal. He wants something immediate. He’s just a man with no forward thought. He’s only about immediate pleasures.
DOBBS: First off, I’m going to a Turkish bath to sweat and soak…till I get all the grime and dirt out of my system. Then I’m going to a haberdasher and gonna get myself a brand-new set of duds. Dozen of everything. Then I’m going to a swell cafe…order everything on the bill o’ fare and if it ain’t just right… or maybe even if it is, I’m gonna bawl the waiter out… and make him take the whole thing back.
Projecting Your Values on Others
Another problem with never knowing when you have enough is assuming others see the world as you do. This leads to unease when Howard asks Dobbs to go into town for provisions.
DOBBS: (sarcastically to himself) They’re running short of provisions, Dobbsie, how about you going to the village? Who does Howard think he is, ordering me around?
HOWARD: What’s that Dobbs?
HOWARD: Better look out. It’s a bad sign when a guy start’s talking to himself.
DOBB: Yeah? Well, who else am I going to talk to? Certainly not you or Curtin. Fine partners you two are.
HOWARD: Got something up your nose? Blow it out. It will do you good.
DOBB: Don’t get the idea you two are putting anything over on me.
HOWARD: Take it easy, Dobbs.
DOBBS: I know what your game is.
HOWARD: Well, you know more than I do.
DOBBS: Why am I elected to go to the village? Why me instead of you and Curtin? Oh, don’t think I don’t see through that? You two have thrown together against me. The two days I’d be gone would give you plenty of time to discover where my goods are, wouldn’t it?
HOWARD: Got any fear along those lines, why don’t you take your goods along with you?
DOBBS: And run the risk of having them taken from me by bandits?
HOWARD: (humorous) If you was to run into bandits, you’d be out of luck anyway. They’d kill you for the shoes on your feet.
DOBBS: Oh, so that’s it. Everything’s clear now. You’re hoping bandits’ll get me. That would save you a lot of trouble, wouldn’t it? And your consciences wouldn’t bother you none neither.
AMY: I love that scene because it shows how determined he is to spin everything into a negative. There’s no solution in the world when you are Dobbs.
A Personal Hell
Later in the film, when extrinsically motivated Dobbs betrays his partners before (he imagines) his partners betray him, he struggles with the voice inside him that tells him what he’s done is wrong.
DOBBS: Conscience. What a thing. If you believe you’ve got a conscience, it’ll pester you to death. But if you don’t believe you’ve got one…what can it do to you? Makes me sick all this talking and fussing about nonsense.
AMY: Huston films it with Humphrey Bogart in front of a fire and these flames are just in front of his face like he is satan. It’s a straight up, “You are in hell now. This hell of your own creation.”
The Treasure in the Title
The only mention of treasure in the film comes from a letter by a character who’s not in the movie. It’s written by the wife of a fellow American prospector James Cody (Bruce Bennett) who follows Curtin back to camp when he goes for provisions. Cody joins the trio in fighting off bandits, but dies in the process. Curtin reads the letter they find in the dead man’s pocket.
CURTIN: “You say if you do not make a real find this time you’ll never go again. I cannot begin to tell you how my heart rejoices at those words, if you really mean them…”
“Now I feel free to tell you. I’ve never thought any material treasure no matter how great, is worth the pain of these long separations… Of course, I’m hoping that you will at last strike it rich. It is high time for luck to start smiling upon you. But just in case she doesn’t, remember we’ve already found life’s real treasure.”
Four Minute Exercise
One of my favorite moments in Bogart’s performance occurs when he suggests to Curtin that they steal the old man’s goods. Curtin won’t play along, but he’s left in an impossible situation.
If you’ve never seen the film, it’s far from a downer. It ends with one of the most famous laughs in movie history.